by Brandon Chao-Chi Yen
It was on a cold January day that I travelled to Grasmere to start a residential fellowship jointly supported by the Wordsworth Trust and the British Association for Romantic Studies. My room was in one of the terrace houses at Town End. From my window, I enjoyed watching Dove Cottage: raindrops dancing on the soft ferns that grew on the stone wall, the yew tree in the front garden casting its broad shade when heaven smiled, and the clematis and rose vines on the whitewashed walls tracing out the variable evening moods. I enjoyed watching everything – the cottage, leaves, twigs, chimney ‘devils’, and Bracken Fell – waking up in the rippling blue light of the early mornings.
There weren’t many flowers when I arrived. Tufts of snowdrops were braving the cold weather on the Wordsworths’ graves in Grasmere Churchyard. A daisy or two decorated the garden behind Dove Cottage. But monotony had no place in this ‘little unsuspected paradise’. An infinite variety of greens reigned. From dark olive green to deep moss green, from pistachio to chartreuse, all shades of green were there on Dove Cottage’s sloping lawn. William referred to the garden as ‘our little domestic slip of mountain’. Dorothy called it the ‘very Mountains’ child’. The whole is now lovingly tended by the Head Gardener Sally Hall, with whom I worked on interpreting the garden, and from whom I learned so much about the plants and the surroundings.
As I unearthed more literary flowers in the Jerwood Centre’s rich collection of manuscripts, flowers outside began to bloom. Winter aconites and more snowdrops appeared on the patch of land by the gate to the Daffodil Garden, near the gingerbread shop. Daffodil shoots poked up along the grey walls of St Oswald’s Church, some bursting into flowers impatiently. Crocuses and hellebores came to life in Dove Cottage’s side garden, which is planted with herbs and vegetables associated with Dorothy Wordsworth.
The contrapuntal dance of flowers real and literary was my greatest reward during my time in Grasmere.
The project I brought there – ‘Wordsworth’s Flowers’ – had been germinating for months. I had been to Edinburgh to research the Scottish zoologist Adam White’s album, which contains drawings, notes, and pressed flowers for his never-completed book, Weeds and Wild-Flowers Loved by Wordsworth. But it was in the Jerwood Centre that the project blossomed. It was there that I came across a precious thing I had looked for in vain at the National Library of Scotland: the lesser celandine that Wordsworth pressed and posted to Adam White.
Writing to White on 16 April 1846, Wordsworth revealed that it was the lesser celandine that was his favourite. (Thanks to the immense popularity of ‘I wandered lonely as a Cloud’, twenty-first-century readers often assume that his favourite was the daffodil!) With the letter, he sent a flower picked from the ‘Celandine Bank’ near Rydal Mount:
Dear Sir, I have great pleasure in complying with your request and herewith send you a specimen from a sunny slope within a few yards of my house which I call Celandine Bank it is so richly starred with that favourite plant of mine…
In Grasmere, I was able to pursue the lesser celandine and other Wordsworthian flowers beyond their literary lives. On a drizzly day, I stood in the nave of St Oswald’s Church, craning my neck to look at Wordsworth’s memorial tablet (designed by the Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner and erected in 1851). On the white tablet are four flowers that carry Wordsworthian associations: the daffodil, the violet, the snowdrop, and the celandine. The first is immortalised, of course, in the poem celebrating the dancing daffodils on Ullswater, a poem that draws so wonderfully upon Dorothy Wordsworth’s prose in her journals. The violet famously appears in one of the Lucy poems: ‘A Violet by a mossy Stone, | Half-hidden from the Eye’. The snowdrop embodies ‘the Spirit of Paradise’ and is a ‘Child of Winter, prompting thoughts that climb | From desolation tow’rds the genial prime’. The celandine, as we have seen, was Wordsworth’s favourite: ‘There’s a flower that shall be mine, | ’Tis the little Celandine’.
It is often pointed out that Woolner misrepresented the lesser celandine (Ficaria verna) as the greater celandine (Chelidonium majus). In 1882, Woolner came to his own defence: ‘I had no intention of representing the greater, that being a flower wholly unsuited to my purpose.’ Nevertheless, the flower on the memorial tablet bears a striking resemblance to the greater celandine.
In 1851, the year in which the Grasmere tablet was erected, Thomas Woolner also entered the competition for Wordsworth’s memorial statue in Westminster Abbey. The winning entry was by another sculptor, Frederick Thrupp. Thrupp’s work gives pride of place to the daisy, a flower associated with one of Wordsworth’s favourite poets, Robert Burns, as well as with his beloved brother John, who went down with the Earl of Abergavenny in Weymouth Bay in 1805.
Woolner’s design for the competition features another flower. Much to my surprise, I saw the central part of Woolner’s model for the competition sitting quietly in the Jerwood Centre’s Reading Room. Woolner’s Wordsworth holds a tiny flower in his left hand. The flower is difficult to identify, but an 1857 article explains that it was meant to be a lesser celandine: one of the figure’s hands is ‘resting easily upon the knee, and holding a flower of the small celandine – the other hand was locked in his breast, a favorite attitude with the poet.’
Grasmere is teeming with memories of Wordsworth’s flowers, memories embodied in living plants, manuscripts, illustrations, sculptures, and pressed flowers, which Wordsworth’s son-in-law Edward Quillinan called the ‘Relics of Eden-land’. Being there enabled me to put together those relics and to regain, in my imagination, a paradise lost.
With the generous help of the staff at the Wordsworth Trust, I was able to assemble many precious ‘Relics of Eden-land’ for an exhibition at the Wordsworth Museum. Entitled Spirit of Paradise: Wordsworth’s Flowers, this exhibition will be open throughout March 2017. It features manuscripts, illustrations, old books, and pressed flowers, all of which shed new light on the Wordsworths’ connections with flowers. The visitor is encouraged to explore the marvellous garden at Dove Cottage, too.
Brandon Chao-Chi Yen holds a PhD from the University of Cambridge, where he worked on Wordsworth’s iconography. His research in Grasmere culminated in an exhibition on Wordsworth’s flowers at the Wordsworth Museum in March 2017. The texts and images in the exhibition, together with other primary materials, will appear in a book he is writing with Peter Dale. Entitled The Spirit of Paradise: Wordsworth’s Gardens and his Flowers, it will be published by Antique Collectors’ Club (ACC Art Books) in spring 2018. Brandon’s next major project – on Ireland and late Georgian imaginings of belonging – has earned him a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellowship.